A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 25: An Octothorpe Follow-up

Back in The Octothorpe, part 1 of 2, I quoted typographic guru Robert Bringhurst’s claim as to the cartographic origins of the ‘#’ sign:

In cartography, it is a traditional symbol for village: eight fields around a central square. That is the source of its name. Octothorp means eight fields.1

It’s certainly a charming idea, and the neatly coincidental dictionary definition of ‘thorpe’ as “[in place names] a village or hamlet”2 does nothing to contradict it. In the end, though, I could find no other sources in agreement with Bringhurst’s suggestion, while stacked against it were two first-person accounts of the very birth of the word ‘octothorpe’ — and both of them explicitly contradicted him.34 As far as I was concerned, the ‘#’ symbol was the coelacanth descendant of ‘lb’ and ‘℔’, and the word ‘octothorpe’ a joke coined at Bell Labs; neither the symbol nor its name was cartographic in any way.

Then, a few weeks ago, when I was rather occupied with other matters, reader Bertil left an intriguing comment on that same post, writing:

The # is used a cartographic symbol in Sweden (at least) for sawmills, or more precisely, as a symbol for the part of the mill where the planks are stored for air-drying.

That is quite the statement.

Bertil also posted a map key on which the ‘#’ (or at least a slightly more rectilinear version of it) appeared as a symbol for the term brädgård. My Swedish is as non-existent as my Latin, but with the aid of Google Translate I read through Swedish Wikipedia’s entries on brädgård, or ‘lumber yard’, and also nummertecken, or ‘number symbol’.

Lo and behold: in Sweden, ‘#’ is indeed a cartographic symbol, a symbolic representation of a lumber yard by way of the stacked levels of timber to be found there. Not only that, but in Swedish the symbol is also known by the slang terms brädgård — lumber yard — and vedstapel, or ‘woodpile’, a pleasing pair of monikers to be added to the symbol’s many English names. It may not be Robert Bringhurst’s “eight fields around a central square”, but I’m happy to find that the hash symbol does have a cartographic link after all. Many thanks to Bertil for his comments!

There is a welter of other punctuation-related stories to be covered this week. First up, John Gruber of Daring Fireball writes about the rise of the asterisk as a substitute for bold or italic text on the web. Though not strictly punctuation, the asterisk was created at the ancient Library at Alexandria,5 that same punctuation factory that gave rise to Aristophanes’ three-dot system in the third century BC,6 and yet it remains relevant even today. An impressive innings.

Next up are two quite different attempts to coin new marks of punctuation. Rob Walker, writing at Design Observer, recounts a conversation with his wife, the photographer Ellen Susan, in which she proposed a new mark of punctuation. Her brainchild is the “ElRey mark”, a sort of double-ended exclamation mark intended to convey exactly half the normal level of import. The name, Walker writes,

[…] refers to the name of our former dog, a highly dignified chow who was a master at communicating feeling with graceful understatement. Using the Spanish words for “the king” also suggests that an ElRey connotes comfortable mastery of protocol and politesse, intertwined with a steadfast refusal to raise one’s voice unless something is on fire.

I encourage you to read the full article; I remain unconvinced by the ElRey mark, but nevertheless it’s nice to see a semi-serious attempt to push punctuation forward.

Following closely on the heels of Walker & Susan’s demure ElRey mark is a rather more boisterous bevy of new punctuation. The title of Mike Trapp’s bold article for College Humor,8 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need”, is itself in need of at least one irony mark, but his collection of manufactured marks are gloriously uninhibited. My favourites are the “andorpersand”, an enhanced ampersand that stands in for “and/or”, and the “Morgan Freemark”, which, Trapp writes, “reminds readers that they can read words in any voice they want, so maybe they should read these words in Morgan Freeman’s voice”. A powerful message.

The symbols are available for download in TTF format, and you should probably thank your lucky stars that they’re not yet available as a web font.

That’s all for now. Thanks for bearing with me during the past few weeks!

R. Bringhurst, “octothorpe,” in The Elements of Typographic Style : version 3.2, Hartley and Marks, Publishers, 2008, p. 314+. ↩︎
thorp,” Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2011. ↩︎
D. A. Kerr, “The ASCII Character "Octatherp",” , 2006. ↩︎
R. Carlsen, “What the \#\#\#\#?,” Telecoms Heritage Journal, iss. 28, pp. 52-53, 1996. ↩︎
R. Pfeiffer, “Aristarchus: The Art of Interpretation.” Clarendon, 1968, pp. 210-233. ↩︎
A. J. Kemp, “The Tekhne Grammatike of Dionysius Thrax: Translated into English,” Historiographia Linguistica, vol. 13, iss. 2/3, pp. 343-363, 1986. ↩︎

3 comments on “Miscellany № 25: An Octothorpe Follow-up

  1. Comment posted by Carl on

    The discussion of a village reminded me of the Chinese character 井, which means “well.” The Confucian philosopher Mencius thought that taxes should be done on the “well” system in which there were eight plots of land held by private owners and a ninth central plot (like the middle of an octothorpe) owned by the state and maintained by all, the product of which would be given as taxes.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Carl — what an odd coincidence! I wonder if there’s any link at all between Bringhurst’s “eight fields around a central square” and the well-field system?

      Thanks for the comment. I feel some light reading on Confucian philosophy coming on.

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